Ben Helfgott’s loss to the Holocaust education and commemoration sector is incalculable – his loss to me as a friend and inspiration is even harder to bear. His praise was worth earning, his support significant.
Ben was one of the very first Holocaust survivors in the UK to tell his experiences publicly and to a wide audience.
He was born in Pabianice, Poland, in November 1929 and was barely 10 years old when the Nazis forcibly moved him and his family into what was to become the first ghetto established in occupied Poland. During his formative years, he endured the harrowing ordeals of confinement within the ghetto, forced labour, and incarceration in multiple concentration camps. He was eventually liberated in May 1945 from Terezin by the Russian Army.
Among his extended family, only his sister Mala managed to survive the horrors of the Holocaust.
Ben did more than only share his own personal testimony. He worked hard, along with many others, to ensure a strong foundation for Holocaust education and commemoration in the UK and beyond.
He was an integral member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, working with colleagues around the world to ensure international collaboration and consensus for high quality Holocaust education.
In the UK, he was a founder of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the 45 Aid Society. He was also a founder Trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, following his contributions to the Government’s Steering Committee for Holocaust Memorial Day.
At the end of his term of office, he became our Hon President, guiding and advising our trustees and staff.
Over the past decade and more that I have led HMDT, Ben has provided advice, guidance, constructive criticism and comment.
Many is the time he has said to me ‘I like you, but I must tell you that you should…’. I have listened, and hope that I have done justice to his vision for Holocaust commemoration and honoured his experiences fittingly.
Ben was never one to shy away from stating his opinion assertively – and his views carried weight and authority.
Despite his small stature, he had immense presence and charisma, making deep impressions on everyone with whom he came into contact – young people, Prime Ministers, journalists and Royalty.
No-one wanted to let Ben down, he inspired in so many of us the drive and commitment to do whatever we could to share the truth of the Holocaust as widely as possible.
Ben’s energy was extraordinary. Doing press-ups regularly each morning well into his eighties, travelling the world to international conferences about Holocaust education, research, restitution and more – he was also a devoted husband, father and grandfather to a wonderful family.
He was rightly proud of his family: his wife Arza, whom he married in 1966, his three ‘boys’ Maurice, Michael and Nathan, and beloved grandchildren.
His legacy through HMDT is clear: Holocaust and genocide commemoration and education, embedded in communities around the country, and marked by Royalty and Prime Ministers.
But his personal presence and contributions will be sorely missed in the days and years to come. The last few times I’ve seen Ben, his smile has lit up his face, and has been my inspiration.
His legacy will endure through the educational initiatives he supported, the organisations he influenced, and the countless lives he touched.
We will all be the poorer without Ben’s smile, his persistence, his drive and his commitment. All of us at HMDT extend our deepest condolences to all the Helfgott family.
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